Often, while sitting through dialysis treatment for hours on end, Daryl Johnson harks back to his football days at Morgan State half a century ago, when victories were a given and championships the rule.
"It's amazing to think we were undefeated three years in a row," said Johnson, 71, then the Bears quarterback. "We'll take to our graves the memories of being part of that era."
On Saturday, during halftime of its game against North Carolina A&T, Morgan State will pay homage to the 1967 team. Nearly two dozen players are expected and will be honored from that squad, which went 8-0, won its third consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship and extended the Bears' winning streak to 26 games, then the longest in college football.
"It was quite a year," Johnson said. "With all that was going on in our society, from civil rights to Vietnam, football at Morgan State was the constant. We knew we were special, but never jealous of each other. Coach [Earl] Banks' mantra was, 'A hero ain't nothin' but a sandwich.'"
Heroes? The Bears had plenty. Thirteen players — one-fourth of the squad — would be drafted by NFL teams and three (Raymond Chester, John "Frenchy" Fuqua and Mark Washington) would earn Super Bowl rings. Fifty years ago, Morgan State outscored opponents, 285-78 and registered three shutouts, including a 27-0 beating of Delaware State that, somehow, aggravated the coach.
"[Banks] was a perfectionist and he hadn't liked the way we'd played," Johnson said. "He got so upset, they had to bring out a lawn chair for him to lay down in."
Two games mattered most. One was a 36-26 victory over archrival Maryland State (now UMES) before 8,000 jubilant fans at Hughes Stadium. Johnson passed for two touchdowns and ran for another; Edward Hayes returned a kickoff 94 yards for a score; and Washington intercepted a pass by the Hawks' Jimmy Duncan — who'd later play for the Colts — and raced 32 yards to the end zone.
Was the outcome ever in doubt?
"It was always assumed that we'd be successful," said Washington, 69.
It might seem obvious now, but the full significance of the 1966 Tangerine Bowl was not so apparent to the terrific Morgan State team that traveled to Orlando, Fla., a half-century ago to make college football history. "That was a turning point for black universities,'' said co-captain James Phillips, "but the thing about it was, we really didn't know. All we knew was it was a football game and that we were going there to win a football game."
At homecoming, Morgan State's centennial, that premise was put to the test. At Memorial Stadium, amid 35 floats and eight marching bands, Morgan State found itself trailing North Carolina A&T, 20-7, at halftime. Elvin Bethea, the visitors' huge defensive end, was overwhelming the Bears' front line. At the break, Johnson curled up in a corner and prayed.
"Lord, I know that you're apt to be impartial, but it looked like you were on A&T's side in the first half," he said. "It would be nice if you were on our side in the second half."
Morgan State roared back. Bethea was checked, the Bears' Jeff Queen blocked two enemy passes and Johnson hit Gerald Boyd for the deciding touchdown in a 27-20 win.
"We played together and we played hard," running back John Sykes said. "We knew we were always going to win — we just didn't know by how much."
A freshman from City, where he'd been an All-American, Sykes thrived at Morgan State. Early that season, he replaced the injured Fuqua, rattling off 100 yards in one game and scoring three times in another. But what he remembers most is how the Bears triumphed on a shoestring budget.
"Our whirlpool didn't work right, and we wouldn't get in it for fear of being electrocuted," said Sykes, 68. "Only those players who were injured got their ankles taped. We'd hop up on the table and Coach Banks would wiggle our ankles and ask, 'Is it hurt or is it indifferent?' If he could move the ankle, he'd wave us off."
"We had so many good players that if you missed a beat, there was no telling when you'd get back in the game," Sykes said.
On road trips, the Bears slept on cots in the enemy's gym and ate in its dining hall.
"One school, I think it was Virginia State, fed us nothing but rice," Sykes said. "They must have figured the starch would slow us down. But we won anyway (34-3)."
At season's end, Morgan State was offered a berth in the Tangerine Bowl opposite West Chester State — the same school it had beaten there, 14-6, the year before to become the first historically black college team to play in, and win, an integrated bowl game. After great debate, players turned down the repeat bid; they wanted fresh meat. But that won't detract from Saturday's reunion of a team that will gather to swap memories of a golden Bear era.
"I'm coming back to reconnect with these guys — and to pay tribute to those who aren't here," said Washington, of Alexandria, Va. "Sure, we're older, and the glass is half empty, but this is a chance to regroup in celebration of what we accomplished as a team."
Morgan State players from 1967 team drafted by pros